Literature: Nothing to Envy

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is a 2009 novel written by Barbara Demick. The book is partly a novelization of interviews with refugees from Chongjin, North Korea. Demick interviewed more than one hundred defectors, but she chose to focus on those from Chongjin because it was more likely to be an honest representation than the capital city, Pyongyang. The interviewees are of both genders and of various ages, backgrounds and social standing.

The book covers the lives of the interviewees during their time in North Korea and events that occurred in that time. Those events include the death of Kim Il-sung, the crash of the North Korean economy and the mass famine of the 1990s. The final chapters are about the various ways the refugees defected and fled the country, finally arriving in South Korea, and adjusting to the modern world.

The main characters/interviewees of the book are:
  • Mrs. Song — A pro-regime housewife.
  • Oak-hee — Mrs. Song's eldest daughter. She is stubborn and rebellious and never fully loyal to the regime her mother adored.
  • Mi-ran — The teenage daughter of an abducted South Korean POW. This background holds them to one of the lowest social standings. She and Jun-sang dated in secret.
  • Jun-sang — A student with Japanese-Korean ancestry. This greatly lowered the family's social standing and Jun-sang was pressured to work hard so he could move way up and away from it. (As much as that was possible.) He dated Mi-ran in secret.
  • Kim Hyuck — A boy who was originally born to a well-off family but a series of misfortune lead to his father giving him and his brother to an orphanage and later ending up on the streets.
  • Dr. Kim — A female doctor loyal to the regime. She has relatives in China.

Provides examples of:

  • Anyone Can Die: During the famine, such things as rank and background no longer matter.
  • Arranged Marriage: Still very common in North Korea.
  • Aww, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Mrs. Song and Oak-hee's mother/daughter relationship is this
  • Big Brother Is Employing You
  • Big Brother Is Watching
  • Bittersweet Ending: All of the interviewees were able to safely reach South Korea, but all have suffered.
    • Mrs. Song and Oak-hee lost their husband/father and son/brother to the famine. Oak-hee left also behind her two children of which she deeply regrets.
    • Mi-ran's two older sisters were taken away to prison camps due their families defection and likely died there.
    • Jun-sang left his parents behind in North Korea and may never see them again.
    • Kim Hyuck lost his father and believes his older brother in the famine.
    • Dr Kim's father died of starvation in his grief over Kim Il-sung's death. She also left behind a son and her mother.
  • Crapsack World
  • Chastity Couple: Mi-ran and Jun-sang never went beyond holding hands and kissing (occurring only after dating a few years).
  • City in a Bottle: Most grew up believing that no nation in the world was better off than North Korea and, if anything, were worse off.
  • Defector from Commie Land: All the interviewees, eventually.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Jun-sang
  • Domestic Abuse: Oak-hee was a victim.
  • Eat the Dog: Kim Hyuck admits to killing and eating dogs during the famine.
    • Jun-sang's mother raises dogs and is heartbroken after one puppy is stolen and likely killed for food.
  • Happily Married: Mrs. Song
  • Highschool Sweethearts: Jun-sang and Mi-ran in secret.
  • Infant Immortality: Adverted horribly
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: When he learns that Min-ran is married after his arrival in South Korea, Jun-sang decides not to contact her.
  • Jerkass: Oak-hee's husband
  • Mood Whiplash: One chapter starts with Min-ran happily working as a kindergarten teacher then goes in the declining heath and eventual disappearance of her students.
  • One Steve Limit: There are two Kims, and to prevent confusion they are always addressed as Dr. Kim and Kim Hyuck (or just Hyuck).
  • Orphan's Ordeal: Kim Hyuck has one.
  • Orphan's Plot Trinket: Though she isn't a orphan at that point, Dr. Kim is given a list of her relatives in China by her dying father in hope that she'll use it to leave.
  • Parental Abandonment: Dr. Kim and Oak-hee left children behind in North Korea. Dr. Kim had previously lost custody of her son due to divorce.
    • Kim Hyuck and his brother were left in a orphanage by their father.
  • Public Execution: Jun-sang witnesses the execution of a man arrested for stealing.
  • Secret Relationship: Mi-ran and Jun-sang, because Mi-ran's low family rank would badly affect Jun-sang's future if it became known they were involved together. Jun-sang's parents also wanted him to focus on school, not girls.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Jun-sang and Mi-ran
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: North Koreans are automatically citizens of South Korea, but defectors often suffer culture shock due to South Korea being so radically different. For example, although South Koreans have adopted phrases like "email" into their vernacular, North Koreans still use the same sort of speech patterns they've used since the 1950s. It would the equivalent of someone in the U.S. today saying, "Gee whiz, that sure is swell" without a hint of irony.
  • Titled After the Song: The book is titled after a propaganda song about how great life in North Korea is because of Kim Il-sung.
  • Worthless Foreign Degree: The degrees of Jun-sang, Mi-ran and Dr. Kim become useless after defection.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: After leaving North Korea, the refugees can't return for fear of death.